By Patrick O’Neill, posted on the Garner Citizen
It’s hard to imagine the horror Marietta Jaeger Lane felt when she woke up in a Montana campground in 1973 to discover her 7-year-old daughter, Susie, was missing.
After putting her five children to sleep in a tent while on a family camping trip, Lane gave them each a hug and kiss goodnight. Susie had climbed out of her sleeping bag to give her mother a special good night hug. That was the last time Lane ever saw her youngest child again.
In the morning, the family discovered that someone had come in the night, cut a hole in the side of the children’s tent and abducted Susie, whose stuffed animals were left behind on the ground.
What followed was a journey Lane never expected. For a year after Susie’s abduction, Lane, who will be speaking this Saturday, March 19 at Garner’s St. Christopher Episcopal Church, waged a battle with God. Why had her daughter been taken from her under such devastating circumstances?
Before leaving their Michigan home for the trip, Lane said the family prayed, specifically asking God to bless and protect them.
“And then this happened. Where are you God? Where are you in this?” Lane recalled asking.
It wasn’t until a year after Susie’s abduction that Lane learned that her daughter had been tortured and raped for more than a week before being strangling to death and dismembered. The serial killer who abducted her, David Meirhofer, had also confessed to murdering three other children.
“He had her locked up in a broom closet, naked, having to sit in her own excrement in an abandoned farm house,” Lane said. “He would come every night and bring her food and water, but he would also rape her.”
Lane said she was blessed to have a year to work through her questions with God.
“… Because I was Susie’s mother, my motherliness made me go screaming after God, and God was there for me, and I came to understand that nobody grieved more about all the terrible things that happened to Susie, nobody was grieving more about that than God.”
Lane, now 72, said every time she felt rage and anger toward Susie’s abductor, God would tell her: “But that’s not how I want you to feel.”
As the first anniversary of Susie’s abduction approached, Lane gave an interview in which she expressed a desire to speak with her daughter’s kidnapper.
On June 25, 1974 — exactly a year to the minute of Susie’s abduction — Lane’s phone rang in the middle of the night, waking her from a sound sleep.
It was Meirhofer, who had called to taunt her.
“But he wasn’t counting on the spiritual journey that I’d been on during the intervening year,” Lane said.
Rather than get hysterical, Lane spoke with compassion toward Meirhofer, telling him how terrible he must feel to be burdened with the reality of what he had done, and that God loved him.
“He was virtually undone by what God had done to me, and backed down and stayed on the phone for about an hour and 20 minutes,” Lane said. “At one point I told him that I had been praying for him, and I asked him what I could do to help him, and he just broke down and … he said, ‘I wish this burden could be lifted from me.’”
Lane said that she knew what that could mean regarding the fate of her daughter but that she was committed to finding proof of what had happened to Susie.
That proof came in the course of that conversation, which Lane had been taping.
“He just relaxed and said a lot of things that he probably never in his wildest dreams intended to say, but he gave out enough information about himself — and God had graced me to remain calm … It just kind of undid him … but it was enough information that the FBI was able to identify him.”
After Meirhofer’s arrest, Lane stated publicly her opposition to capital punishment for her daughter’s killer. Because he wasn’t facing execution, Lane said he agreed to plead guilty to Susie’s murder and the other three murders. He was suspected in as many as a dozen Montana murders.
Meirhofer committed suicide the same day of his guilty plea.
As part of her healing, Lane befriended Meirhofer’s mother. The two mothers have prayed together at the graves of their children.
“She loves me,” Lane said. “She said I was the best thing that ever happened to her. I had absolutely no ill will toward her whatsoever. I just have grief and enormous sadness because she had no idea that there was anything wrong with her son.”
Today, more than 37 years after her daughter’s death, Lane speaks of her journey as being part of “Susie’s parable.” Jesus used parables, and the way Lane sees it, God is using her to be a living example of what’s possible when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation.
“I understood after it was over that it needed to happen because this was a very sick young man who had killed many children, and he had never been identified,” she said.
“God had me prepared, had laid the foundation in me, so that I would eventually respond as God needed me to respond, and he allowed Susie to be a sacrificial lamb.”
In the years that have passed, and in the hundreds of talks she has given, scores of people have come up to Lane to tell her that forgiveness in their own lives seemed unattainable, but after listening to her story, they know they can forgive those who have hurt them.
“I know it’s a powerful script, but I don’t take any credit for it because it is not the script I wanted,” Lane said. “It’s a script written by the Holy Spirit to help people understand the importance of forgiveness and how it affects our relationship with God …”
In the fall, Lane, who has lectured all over the world with the group Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, was interviewed on Vatican Radio during a trip to Rome. In his book, “No Future without Forgiveness,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu gives an account of Lane’s story.
Because hers is a real-life story, Lane says, “There’s nobody who can come to me and say, ‘Well, you wouldn’t be opposed to the death penalty if it happened to your little girl,’ because they hear that it did. They may disagree with my stance on the death penalty but they can’t argue with my human experience. … To kill somebody in [Susie’s] name would be an insult to her memory.”